Let's just say this now: the heist movie is tired, kaput, over. Maybe it was the endlessly upgraded arms race in cinematic heists trying to outdo each other. One time it's a $50 million job, the next $100 million. Every time the perps are armed with increasingly high-tech gadgetry pitted against One Lone Cop who must say at some point early in the film, "These guys are good." Ocean's 11 and 12 didn't help, playing the whole thing for a lark and tossing around astronomical sums of money like so many imaginary zeros. So with all this to consider, how is it the new heist movie Inside Man - featuring some pretty smart bank robbers facing off against a possibly smarter hostage negotiator - turns out to be such spiffy entertainment?
For one, the film seems located in a neighborhood that's at least adjacent to the real world. For another, it features Clive Owen vs. Denzel Washington; like Batman vs. Superman but with fewer KAPOW!s. Lastly, it's got a sense of humor, remember those? There are those who will say that Spike Lee is the absolute last person you'd call up to direct a heist movie, since he'd never done anything remotely like it before. Ignore them, as he was the perfect director to bring in on this one, Inside Man being almost more a film about New York's gloriously messy welter of ethnicities than it is about a bank robbery. Though the robbery itself is something to behold, too.
The setting is an edifice in granite, the rare kind of bank that still looks like a bank, all soaring ceilings and art deco. In walk the masked robbers, dressed up as painters and hard to tell apart, with the exception of Clive Owen (good as he's ever been, here) as the authoritatively-voiced leader. Minutes later, they've disabled the cameras, have everyone cowering on the ground under their AK-47s, and have informed a curious beat cop that if any police come near the front door, they start killing hostages. Denzel Washington plays Det. Keith Frazier, a disgraced hostage negotiator suspected of stealing evidence who gets his shot when the bank call comes in. Although the film would have us think that all Frazier wants is to have his name cleared and get his overdue promotion, given the sharp figure Washington cuts - deadly quick smile and an incongruously jaunty white fedora - it's hard to truly believe he ever thinks it won't work out his way. This is Washington working every last inch of his charm, and it practically carries the film all by itself.
Each piece of the robbery/hostage scenario clicks into place, with the NYPD trying to get a dialogue going while inside the robbers terrorize their hostages, keeping everybody in the dark as to what exactly they're there for. But even though all the building blocks are here for a rote heist flick - two smart protagonists squaring off, lots of money at stake, hostages' lives hanging by a thread - it's obvious there's something else going on. The best clue of this is the tangent involving the bank's owner, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer). Case has a mysterious something in one of the safety deposit boxes he doesn't want anybody (including cops) seeing and brings in Madeline White (Jodie Foster, sleek and wonderfully predatory), a clout-heavy Manhattan operator on a first-name basis with the mayor, to help finesse things, and also keep the film from veering into predictability.
This is a smart puzzler of a script that litters every scene with clues but keeps its secret to the bitter end. Lee helps keep things off-kilter all the way through, too, even though he's not trying to constantly jangle the audience's nerves in the tiresome way of the modern blockbuster, with gun-in-face showdowns and pounding music. Well before the conclusion, Lee cuts in flash forward shots of Washington and his partner Mitchell (an excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) interrogating hostages well after the robbery is over, when they're still trying to decipher what exactly happened. The mood is something different, too: propelled forward like your standard policier, but dashed with humor and a wonderfully organic feel for the city. Terrence Blanchard's smooth and compelling score gives it all a welcome, laid-back '70s vibe - echoed also in the numerous Lumet references. Inside Man is a film that swaggers.
Yes, it does seem a strange kind of film for Spike Lee, the first real genre flick he's done, and one of the very few - with the exception of Summer of Sam, which this film most resembles - to not have a host of Important Points to make. Just because Lee doesn't have a specific axe to grind here, however, doesn't mean this is a film without edge. There are numerous pointed references to race - some overt (as when Frazier berates a uniformed cop for references to "spics"), some not (Frazier being upbraided by White in a manner that oozes racial condescension) - but usually with a twist, like in the scene where Frazier interrogates one of the hostages, a Sikh. The man rants about his offensive treatment by the police and how he gets hassled as a suspected terrorist everywhere he goes, to which Frazier quips, "But you can always get a cab, right?" The Sikh man shoots back, without missing a beat, "It's one of the perks."
Who got you that hat? The inside man?